Nawaz Sharif (left) and Imran Khan (right), opponents now, share a platform in 2007. File Photo: AFP / Arif Ali
Nawaz Sharif (left) and Imran Khan (right), opponents now, share a platform in 2007. File Photo: AFP / Arif Ali

The Election Commission of Pakistan in a surprising move has decided not to invite international observers to cover the upcoming general election. In a new code of conduct issued for foreign observers, the ECP has stated that no foreign observers will be invited; by the ECP instead any foreign observer wants to monitor the elections will need to apply for visa himself which will be conditional on security clearance from Pakistan Foreign Ministry.

It can be easily understood that by giving the cold shoulder to international observers the invisible forces in Pakistan are making it certain that on election day they will have a free hand to manipulate the results. As the Pakistani media are already facing undeclared censorship, it will be a blow to all the pro-democratic forces if the decision to keep out international observers is not rescinded.

Management of the mainstream media is being told not to give airtime and space to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), and after Nawaz Sharif’s recent statement on the Mumbai attacks, there is an undeclared restriction on a few of his party members who are defending his narrative.

On the other hand, Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is being presented as a darling and being projected as the patriotic and ethical politician. With mainstream media already under censorship and now with the ECP’s refusal to give free space to international election observers, it seems clear that Pakistan is heading toward an engineered general election, and as a result, the military establishment will succeed in bringing in a coalition government that will happily take dictation and work at their behest.

Though it may seem that the script is working fine for the establishment, there is another dimension and change on the horizon. For the first time in the country’s history, the masses are openly criticizing the political influence of the deep state and also questioning the narrative created by the military establishment, which actually revolves around a security state instead of a social welfare state.

Youth in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and supporters of Sharif in the province of Punjab are raising the same questions. They are questioning the undue influence of the military establishment in the policymaking of the state and shaping narratives, the role of establishment in undermining the civilian and elected governments and raising their concerns on the hegemony of establishment over declaring any opposing or dissenting voice terming as a traitor.

While the motives of Manzoor Pashteen, leader of the PTM, can be doubted and Sharif can be accused of playing the anti-establishment card for his political survival, the questions raised by the youth of FATA and Sharif’s supporters in Punjab are very valid and need to be addressed. Instead of curbing the media and playing religious and “traitor” cards against dissidents and opposing voices, there is a dire need to come up with logical answers to the questions and to address the problems in the social and political fabrics.

Right now the situation on the politician horizon is interesting as all the major players are fighting to gain a share of cake after the next general election. Sharif has already been wounded by the judiciary and is facing the hardest time of his political career. A wife suffering from throat cancer, corruption cases against on him and his whole family, the wrath of religious clerics and the establishment; and now the allegations that he is a traitor after his controversial statement regarding the Mumbai attacks, all these factors can easily doom any political figure or party in a conservative and traditionally pro-establishment society of Pakistan.

On the other hand, Imran Khan is enjoying the overwhelming support of the establishment and the larger section of the media that actually works as a proxy to the establishment. With the religious and traitor cards against Sharif in his hand, Khan is 100% certain that this time he will bury Sharif’s politics and after that, no one will be able to stop him from becoming prime minister.

Deep down somewhere in the dark rooms, the shrewd men of the establishment know that while damaging Sharif and using religion and patriotism as their tools to damage Sharif is the ugliest of all the tricks and it has also put in question the state apparatus to control fanatics at international levels. The more they accuse Sharif of aligning with India to dent his vote bank, the more questions will be raised on the failed narrative of a security state and fingers will be pointed at them as well.

Adding to their worries is the fact that even now, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is still very much intact and there seems to be no sign of major defections. A few opportunistic politicians who like to go with the wind will defect or ditch Sharif, but they are not in significant numbers. So even after winning the battle, the establishment realizes that the war is far from over.

The same is the case with Imran Khan; he knows that Sharif is not going to lose his political base of Punjab easily and will not go down without fighting. His greatest worry is the fact that even after injuring Sharif with the religious card his vote bank does not seem to be diminished.

Meanwhile, Sharif might be thinking of a resurgence with the backing of the international establishment. His good ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be good enough to keep him in the good books of the Donald Trump administration in Washington.

However, Sharif does not enjoy the old cordial relations with the new Saudi establishment. While the US is critical of the Pakistan Army’s influence on politics, Sharif will be using Washington’s concerns to his favor and try to use its influence to bail him out and negotiate with the country’s establishment for a free and fair election. In 2007 Benazir Bhutto re-emerged wit the backing of Washington and got free and fair elections as a result.

For that to happen, however, Sharif needs to convince the international players that he is not under the influence of the military establishment of Pakistan, and that is why he is challenging them openly. He also has to prove that he still has the public’s support and if he is given the chance of a free and fair election, he can prove it. This is the only chance Sharif has if he is to survive.

The problem for the Pakistani establishment is that no one, including the Republicans in the US, supports martial law, nor does anyone trust the establishment and pro-establishment forces any more.

Maybe the establishment will get the results it desires through engineered elections, but this time the old tactics of ousting an elected prime minister and dismantling his political party have created a lot of trouble for the establishment. In fact, this has completely changed the landscape of the pro-establishment province of Punjab and the traditionally obedient province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This time it is the voters in Punjab and youth in KPK who are expressing resentment over the disrespect of their votes and the narrative of the establishment.

It can be said that Pakistan is heading toward engineered elections in the wake of agitation in KPK in the form of PTM and the building up of another such movement in Punjab against the establishment’s undue influence on the upcoming election, it seems that the masses are demanding a new social and political contract.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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